Setting Boundaries — A Fresh Look

Photo credit: seyed mostafa zamani / Foter / CC BY


With the holiday season upon us, it’s a good time to revisit this piece on boundaries from the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you’re needing a coaching session to balance your way through the holiday season, please be in touch — I’ll be in the office up until Dec.21 before taking some time off.

Here’s something I’ve noticed about coaching clients who talk about wanting to learn to set better boundaries:

When the conversation heads in this direction, all the energy drains out.

From my vantage point, it seems that the very words “setting boundaries” carry a whole bunch of dread (at least for some people).

And as any good coach knows, when a client starts talking about a goal that they dread, things are going nowhere fast.

So whenever the conversation turns to setting boundaries, I look for the reframe that inspires and excites rather than drains and depletes.


Here are two reframes I’ve found helpful:

1. Rather than concentrating on what boundaries need to go up, I ask what boundaries need to come down.


Imagine someone who always says yes when someone asks for help. This person knows this pattern needs to change for his/her own well-being. He/she says, “I need to set better boundaries!”

Reframe (they type of question I might ask in a coaching conversation): 

What boundary do you have that prevents you from saying no when someone asks for help?

(Often this will be a internal boundary about what the client deserves or how the client treats him/herself (e.g. “I don’t deserve time to relax”)).

I find that reframing the conversation from erecting boundaries to smashing boundaries immediately adds energy and possibility.


2. Instead of talking about relationships governed by rules, I talk about relationships that are designed.

“Setting boundaries” has a tight, rigid feel to it. Making and enforcing rules can take a lot of energy, especially for someone who already feels weak in the boundaries department.

But revisiting the same relationship in terms of “design” brings in fluidity, openness, and empowerment.

In coach training, we talked about “designing alliances” with coaching clients — having honest conversations about what we are both bringing to the relationship, what we need from the relationship, how we want to be with each other in the relationship, and how we will address challenges in the relationship.

The designed alliance idea turns out to be useful in all relationships, not just coach-client alliances.

(You can read more about designed alliances here, on the website of The Coaches Training Institute).


Morsels of Change questions to ponder:

What internal boundaries would you like to smash?

What relationship in your life is calling out for a conscious design?


The Book List: Communication and Relationships

Coaching clients often ask me for books that I would recommend on various topics, so in this post I summarize some of my favourite books when it comes to communication and relationships.

(For a lengthier list of books that have influenced me and my approach, see the page Influences and Extras. And for a great list of book recommendations from The Coaches Training Institute on coaching, leadership, and business, head here.)



Communication and Relationships

The Non-Violent Communication (NVC) series of books is exceptionally helpful for starting to recognize one’s own needs and emotions, and for learning to listen for the needs and emotions expressed by others. NVC slows one down enough to really be present in the conversation, rather than always thinking one step ahead to the point one wants to make (whether or not making that point is helpful to the relationship or the conversation!). The series has many different titles and you’re likely to find at least a few of them at your local library. Search under the author’s name, Marshall Rosenberg. And for more information, explore the Center for Non-Violent Communication‘s website, or watch Marshall Rosenberg on YouTube.

How to Be an Adult in Relationships, by David Richo, is a fantastic exploration of the patterns we bring to our intimate relationships, and how to work through some of those patterns so that we aren’t expecting our significant other to fill all of our unmet needs. It’s a book about how to grow up, both for ourselves and for the sake of those we are in relationship with. It’s highly readable, full of sample exercises and checklists, and offers lots of “ah-ha!”s for anyone willing to open up to the less attractive side of themselves — a side that always shows up in our relationships sooner or later.

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, is one of a number of Byron Katie books that helps the reader through “The Work”, Katie’s name for a system of inquiry that illuminates our own projections and where our own work (not the work of the Other in the relationship!) remains to be done. Regularly doing “The Work” shows us how our judgments and irritations about the Other are just windows into the growth we ourselves are needing. Plus, Katie is funny. You can read more about The Work, and see video examples, on her website.

What would you add?

What books — or other resources — have you found most helpful for your learning about communication and relationships? I’d love to hear your replies in the comments.

Ways to Work with Irrational Beliefs

This post was originally published as an edition of the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you like it, you may wish to sign up here!

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

Who Would I Be Without This Belief?

Sometimes I stumble upon an assumption or belief that I’ve been unconsciously carrying around, and I think, “What the hell? Why do I believe that? That’s not even true!”

But even knowing it’s not true, I’m not able to let go of the belief.

Perhaps you’ve encountered a belief like that — something which your logical, rational mind doesn’t accept, but which you do believe on some other (emotional? intuitive? cellular? reptilian brain?) level.

This Morsel of Change has some of my best tips for working with such beliefs.

I invite you to think about an irrational belief you hold, and to try on the exercises below as you read this.

Ways to Work With Irrational Beliefs

1. Explore how the belief was formed.

a) Journal about where you first learned this belief:

  • Who taught you this?
  • Whose experience or role modelling led you to this belief?
  • When you first encountered this belief, did you question it and explore it, or did you “swallow it whole” without examining it?
    (Gestalt psychology refers to this “swallowing whole” as introjection — beliefs that we take in without chewing them over and digesting them. In Gestalt, part of becoming a functional being is to regurgitate such beliefs in order to examine them for ourselves before deciding whether or not we want these beliefs to be part of us.)
  • What emotional state were you in when you first learned this belief? Were you vulnerable? Were you a child dependent on others?
  • How did your environment encourage you to take on this belief? What would have been the consequences if you hadn’t taken on this belief?

b) Journal about what has changed since then:

  • What about your current environment is different from the environment where you first learned this belief?
  • What about your emotional state is different from when you first learned this belief?
  • In your current environmental and emotional state, does this belief still serve you? Is it helping you, or harming you?
  • In your new environment, what are the consequences if you continue to hold this belief?
  • In your new environment, what are the consequences if you let go of this belief?

2. Questioning your thoughts.

Byron Katie’s work is the most accessible way I know to examine and question thoughts.
She invites us to ask four questions of our belief:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

Finally, the Byron Katie work gets us to find “turn-arounds” and to find examples of the truth in each of these turn-arounds.

For example, if my belief was “She doesn’t care about me”, then the turn-arounds might be:

a) “She does care about me” (and then I would have to find three examples of how she cares about me).

b) “I don’t care about her” (I’ve turned around the subject and object) (and then I would have to find three examples of this new statement being true).

c) “I don’t care about me” (I’ve turned it around to find out if I’m projecting my own belief onto “her”) (and again, find three examples of when this has been true).

3. Give the belief a character and get creative.

Imagine the belief is “No one cares about me.” Imagine the character inside your head who says to you: “No one cares about you.”

  • What does this character look like?
  • What are some of his/her favourite things to say?
  • If he/she had a career, what would it be?
  • What does this character do after hours? Who is this character friends with?

Give your character a name (perhaps “Big Bully” works for this example) and get creative: draw a picture of him/her, make a paper bag puppet of him/her.

Next time you hear that belief in your head, you can say, “Oh, it’s Big Bully”. You can take two minutes to pull out your paper bag puppet and put on a little play in which Big Bully is the star.

And then you can say: “Okay, Big Bully, I’ve heard you, but now I remember that you’re just one piece of me, you’re not ALL of me. And I’m going to go back to listening to some of my other thoughts now.”


Morsels of Change question to ponder:

Who would I be without this belief?


How Judgment Separates Us from Others

This post was originally published as an edition of the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you like it, you may wish to sign up here!

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How Does Judgment Separate Me from Myself and Others?

Once, during an appointment with a therapist, I was describing the judgment I felt toward someone close to me, and how I didn’t want to feel that judgment.

“And what is judgment?” she asked.

I pondered a moment and then realized what it was for me: “An excuse not to love.”

Judgment is a tool we use to create separation, to divide ourselves from each other, to disconnect. As soon as I judge you, I create a barrier between us: “You are like this, but I am like that.” This separation shuts down our hearts, closing us off from each other. The judgment gives us an excuse not to love.

And it’s not just in our relationships with each other; it’s in our relationships with ourselves too. I judge the “productive” part of me as the “real me”, and I judge the “lazy and undisciplined part” as the bad me, the me I don’t want to be. I build up walls that separate the different parts of me from each other, and create excuses to be hard on myself, to not love myself.

Perhaps you judge your body. You create a separation between “you” (i.e. your mind) and your body. Suddenly you aren’t one mind-body, you’re disconnected, separate, judging yourself, with the excuse not to love parts of yourself.

In No Boundary, the spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber writes about human growth as the continual dissolution of false boundaries.

We grow to dissolve the boundary we’ve set up between our persona (the part of ourselves we show to the world) and our shadow (the part we keep hidden), and eventually accept that all of it is part of all of us.

We grow to dissolve the boundary we’ve set up between our mind and our body, and eventually reach a level of mind-body consciousness.

We dissolve the boundaries we’ve set up between “I” and “you” and “us” and “them” by leaning into the human experience that connects us all.

If this topic captures your interest, here are some things you might like to do next:

Read a story about my coaching work with a client struggling with self-judgment

-Keep a record for a week of the judgments that run through your head. What patterns do you notice?

Send me a quick note to set up a coaching call to explore how judgment shows up in your life, the effect it has on you, and how you can start to release it.

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How does judgment separate me from myself and others?

When Will You Reach for Support?

An earlier version of this post appeared in February 2010 on this blog.

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

What level of pain do you suffer before you reach for support?

Gratefully, I often notice these days that my tolerance for emotional pain has diminished. I deeply appreciate being less strong.

For most of my twenties, I had a high tolerance for emotional pain. I spent a lot of time feeling agonized, feeling like the world had sharp edges, feeling like everything had the potential to hurt me. My method for coping was to continually increase my pain tolerance. I had a dysfunctional pride in how much I could take. I could hurt and hurt and hurt before I would break down and reach out for help. I needed to be in crisis before I would crack enough to let someone else in.

What strikes me now is that I break much sooner. My emotional pain doesn’t have to be at 98% before I reach out for comfort, call a friend, go to therapy, talk to a coach, soak in a bath. The overall effect is that my average emotional pain level is much lower. I used to coast along at, say, 80% as my base level. When it spiked up to 98%, I’d ask for help. When it lowered back down to a 90% or 80%, I’d carry on. And all the while be perversely proud about how much I could handle.

I think my base level is now closer to 20%, and I reach for help when it gets to 30%. It’s taken a solid three years to lower my tolerance and build the habit of reaching for help early on, and now that I see the results I wish I had learned this sooner.

How much happier might I have been if I had learned earlier that I didn’t have to do it all on my own? If I had learned that others could provide support and care for me before I was in crisis?

I invite you to cast a glance at your own life and tendencies, and ask yourself:

  • What do I believe I have to do all by myself?
  • What level of pain do I reach before I seek out support?
  • How might my life change if I reached for support sooner?

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

What level of pain do I reach before I seek out support?


How Do You Face the Things That Knock You Over?

This post was originally published as an edition of the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you like it, you may wish to sign up here!

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How Do You Face the Things That Knock You Over?

A number of years ago a teacher told me that sometimes, when allergy season approaches, she gets acupuncture, and takes supplements, and only goes outside when there’s a low pollen count, and closes her windows, and does everything possible to reduce her allergy symptoms before they can take hold. Other years, she says, she doesn’t prepare at all, and ends up knocked over lying on the couch cuddling a box of Kleenex for a few weeks.

This time of year – late October – I always start thinking about seasonal affective disorder, and I’ve been thinking that my approach to it is similar to my teacher’s approach to allergies. Some years I do everything in my power to preempt being knocked over: as soon as September rolls around, I hook myself up with a therapist, a naturopathic doctor, vitamin Bs and Ds, a light therapy lamp, a journalling practice, regular outside exercise; I send notes to my loved ones outlining ways to help and ways not to help and what warning signs to look out for. And other years — I don’t do anything, and I end up sidelined on the couch.

[Side note: If you know someone who faces depression, seasonal or not, I highly recommend Therese Borchard’s posts 10 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person, and 10 Things You Should Say to a Depressed Loved One.]

Just as my teacher couldn’t explain why some years she prepped gung-ho for allergy season, and other years she just let it devour her, I’m not sure why some years I choose approach A and some years I choose approach B.

I imagine that you can find something similar in your life: the thing that tends to knock you over, and the different ways you have of facing it. 

Perhaps you’re easily fatigued, and sometimes you are the Queen of Self-Care, the Guardian of Your Energy, and fatigue doesn’t stand a chance of knocking you down… and other times, you know you’re running yourself into the ground and you just go ahead and do it anyway.

Perhaps you get knocked over by burnout, and sometimes you approach the busy season with lots of support and “me-time” in place, and other times you just do it all and wind up exhausted and depleted.

Perhaps you get knocked over when you feel unsupported and isolated, and sometimes you gear up for tough times by finding a support group and a friend to phone and a coffee date, and other times you lie on the couch lonely and miserable.

And here’s the curious part for me: I’m actually not sure if one way is better than the other.

Perhaps sometimes we need to get sick, run out of energy, feel lonely and miserable. Perhaps sometimes we need to accept that we can’t control it all. Perhaps sometimes we need to surrender to what gets thrown our way. If we never do any of those things, are we human?

On the other hand, my whole line of work is geared around helping people discover the strategies and approaches that help balance out the bumps so that we have more resilience and are less likely to be knocked over. I see huge value in that approach too.

I think the piece we each need to explore is our own awareness of what knocks us over, our own awareness of the different ways we meet those situations, along with a friendly, open curiosity towards what we are choosing and what it is bringing into our lives.

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How do you face the things that knock you over?

How’s That Like Your Life? A Gestalt Self-Awareness Prompt

This post was originally published as an edition of the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you like it, you may wish to sign up here!

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How’s That Like Your Life?

Last night the Transpersonal Therapy Centre (TTC), of which I am a graduate, held an open house for new students. It seemed timely for me to honour some of what I learned in that program by referencing it in this newsletter.

Sometime during my first year at the TTC, when we were up to our necks in Gestalt psychology, “How’s that like your life?” became a catch-phrase for my cohort. (I’m sure it does every year, for every cohort.)

It went something like this:

Someone would start a piece of therapy by talking about something that had been capturing their attention, and sooner or later one of us would interrupt with, “How’s that like your life?”

“I decided to wear this necklace; it’s shiny but understated–”
—> “How’s that like your life?”

“In my dream I was running away, and I couldn’t catch my breath–”
—> “How’s that like your life?”

“I got really frustrated in the group because I couldn’t get my point across–”
—> “How’s that like your life?”

“So I did all the cleaning and the dishes and got angry about it–”
—> “How’s that like your life?”

“I felt guilty because I didn’t even tell her that I wasn’t going to show up–”
—> “How’s that like your life?”

The theory that we were drawing on, Gestalt-wise, is that everything that we notice out in the universe is a projection of our own making. What we see around us is what is inside us. The good I see in you is my projection of my own goodness onto you. The bad I see in you is a projection of my own badness onto you. The perspective I have on what happened is a projection of my internal perspective. The way I behaved is a projection of my internal interpretation.

The gift is that everything you see around you is fodder for your own growth, because it illuminates your projections. The world around you points you to what you need to pay attention to within yourself.

What’s been capturing your attention this week? Take a few moments and think about it. Jot down some of the characteristics about this thing or event that’s been capturing your attention. And then look at those characteristics and inquire of yourself: “How’s that like my life?”

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

How’s that like your life?

Attention to Your Highest Self

This post was originally published as an edition of the Morsels of Change newsletter. If you like it, you may wish to sign up here!

Morsels of Change question to ponder:

What parts of yourself get the most attention?

A few years ago, Otto Scharmer’s blog post about Attentional Violence made a big impression on me. In short, he writes that it is a kind of violence to not be seen in terms of who we really are and who we can become. Too often we’re only seen in terms of where we’ve been and what we’ve done. We — and those around us — inflict attentional violence when we withold our attention from our highest possibility.

I see that sort of attentional violence with many coaching clients; I see it in myself. Too often my attention is focused on how I’m messing up, what I’ve got wrong, what I don’t know, what I can’t do.

Rarely do I put my attention to my highest possibility, my greatest potential, the person I am becoming, who I am when I am at my best.

What a gift it can be to each other and ourselves to start placing our attention on that open space of our own becoming and unfolding, instead of the tight, constricted place of the story we know about ourselves.


A question for you to ponder:

What parts of yourself get the most attention?